Fires fry forest funds
August 25, 2008
The rising costs of fighting wildfires is forcing the U.S. Forest service to pull more than $400 million in funding from a wide range of programs, and those cuts are having a big impact on Colorado foresters and researchers.
As wildfires rage in California, state and national forests across the nation are handing over money once dedicated to campground and trail maintenance, long-reaching research, repair work and strangely, fire-prevention projects.
“It’s all necessary and valuable work that makes for a safer visitor experience ” they are values Americans have come to expect from the management of their public lands,” said Tom Fry, who manages the wildfire program for The Wilderness Society.
The White River National Forest, which spans through 2.3 million acres, including lands surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, and the backcountry of Vail/Eagle County, will lose at least $1.7 million this year, about 10 percent of its budget, said Anica Wong, spokeswoman for the White River National Forest. It’s likely even more will be cut soon, she said.
The Rocky Mountain Research Station, which is doing several studies on how climate change is effecting the mountains and the long-term effect of bark beetle infestations, is also cutting $3.8 million from its budget.
This is the third year in the row the Forest Service has had to raid its own budget to fight wildfires, and the cost of fighting these fires is going up every year.
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Not only are these fires burning more intensely, but they’re also burning closer to homes and developments. More and more people are leaving cities and building houses on the edge of Forest Service land, and the Forest Service is charged with protecting those homes from fire ” which wasn’t as big a problem years ago.
“The cost of wildfire suppression then goes through the roof,” said Cal Wettstein, resources and planning staff officer for the White River National Forest. “It’s really hitting us hard.”
For the past 50 years, scientists in the Frasier Valley in Colorado have been studying around 100 million acres of dead lodgepole pine trees, trying to figure out how they’re effecting important watersheds.
This is important information for places like Eagle County, which every year is losing more and more lodgepole pines because of the beetle infestation, said G. Sam Foster, the director of the Rocky Mountain Research Station.
“Now we’re not going to be able to get critical information on how the mountain pine beetle would effect things like water yield and sedimentation,” Foster said.
Another team of scientists was supposed to be studying how global warming is changing the Rocky Mountains, coming up with predictions on how snow, wildlife and bark beetles would be effected.
While Foster says it’s a good thing wildfires are put out to protect people, it’s a shame these projects were cut. The Forest Service depends on long-reaching research to make decisions, he said.
Budget cuts made in the White River National Forest won’t effect pine-beetle projects, like removing hazardous trees from campgrounds, but other projects are definitely being delayed or canceled, Wong said.
They weren’t able to hire a trail crew leader for the area, who is in charge of doing trail maintenance. Several road repairs and building maintenance projects have been put-off, and other nice things, like new toilets in some campground areas, have been canceled for now.
The big problem is of course funding, and firefighting is never given enough money in the budget, foresters say.
“The best solution is going to be to redesign the way fires are paid for at the national level,” Foster said.
Legislation is moving through Congress right now that would create a stand-alone emergency account for fighting costly fires ” much in the same way the United States pays for other natural disasters such as hurricanes. Wettstein said that would definitely be preferable to how funding is done now.
“You need to create a situation where the cost of these extreme emergency fires doesn’t eat away at other agency programs,” Fry said.
Fry is also hoping to see a large shift in attitudes towards wildfires. The Forest Service has long said that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and is important to forest health, but actually practicing that mantra is a different story, Fry said.
There still seems to be a drive to snuff out every fire, instead of perhaps keeping it contained, no matter what the cost is, he said.
“We as a society at large need to get our heads wrapped around where we can stomach letting fire fulfill it’s ecological role,” Fry said.
Society has a natural fear of fires, and when people from urban areas move to places closer to the wilderness, they expect fires to be put out.
“It’s a cultural legacy we have that goes back to the early days of Smoky the Bear, and Bambi movies, where fire is viewed as something that is unacceptable,” Fry said.